Michele Scarponi of Serramenti PVC Diquigiovanni won the 182km Stage 18 of the Giro d'Italia from Sulmona to Benevento Thursday, as the first grand tour of 2009 winds its way toward Rome Sunday.
Russian Denis Menchov of Rabobank maintained his overall lead after coming home safely in the peloton almost four minutes back.
Menchov leads Italian 2007 Giro champion Danilo Di Luca by 26 seconds ahead of Friday's mountain-top finish up infamous volcano Mount Vesuvius.
Menchov employed defensive tactics here, anxious to protect his advantage over his Italian rival.
"I was waiting for Di Luca to attack. I tried to follow him," said the Russian. "I'm feeling strong and I'm very confident but it's true, I'll feel happier after the Vesuvius stage."
Di Luca is anticipating fireworks on Friday.
"It's going to perhaps be the most important stage of the Giro," he said. "Vesuvius suits me better than the Blockhaus climb (on Wednesday). It's harder. It'll be a battle, based on legs and also nerves."
Scarponi was part of a 20-man breakaway that escaped at around the 50km mark before splitting to a lead bunch of seven over the final few kilometres.
And the Italian proved the strongest in the sprint finish ahead of Colombian Felix Cardenas of Barloworld with American Danny Pate of Garmin in third.
Having just come off a tough mountain stage on Tuesday and with another one to come Thursday, this day was made for a breakaway.
Right from the off the attacks were fast and furious but constantly chased down by the peloton.
However about 50km in 20 men got away and started to build a lead which eventually topped six minutes.
The chase was then on for the peloton, who reduced the arrears to just over two minutes with around 30km to ride but then they strangely sat up and gave up the chase.
As a succession of attacks materialised in the last 10km Cardenas and Saxo Bank's Jason McCartney briefly opened up a gap on the rest but five riders managed to breach the gap until seven men were left for the final sprint.
Belgian Dries Devenyns of Quick Step attacked first but he soon ran out of legs and Pate was next to try his luck but Scarponi had the most gas left in the tank and comfortably surged past the American, even having time to zip up his jersey before crossing the line.
The peloton trundled in almost four minutes back led by Menchov's Rabobank team as the main GC contenders saved their legs for Friday.
© 2009 AFP
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